A French court yesterday began hearing a landmark trial of former Rwandan senior intelligence officer, Capt. Pascal Simbikangwa, for his alleged role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
Simbikangwa’s case is the first to be tried in a French court, two decades after the pogrom that left more than a million people dead.
The suspect, who is charged with complicity to commit genocide and war crimes, faces life in jail if convicted in the seven-week trial.
His case has drawn international attention mainly due to France’s alleged role in the Genocide. It has also been accused of being too slow to prosecute perpetrators of the Genocide.
Appearing before Assize court in Paris, Simbikangwa, 54–a paraplegic due to a car accident in 1986–was in a black wheelchair, dressed in a blown jacket and white tracksuit bottoms.
“I was a captain in the Rwandan army then in the intelligence services,” Simbikangwa told the court in an opening statement.
He was initially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, but the charges were later downgraded to complicity.
Media reports indicate that more than 50 journalists, historians, farmers, security guards, and former intelligence officials are expected to be called as witnesses in the trial.
Simbikangwa is accused of arming the Interahamwe militia and instructing them to man roadblocks and kill the Tutsis.
The suspect, who pleaded not guilty, was arrested in 2008 on France’s Indian Ocean island of Mayotte when living under an alias, Safari Pascal.
After his arrest, France refused to extradite him to Rwanda, and decided to try him under laws that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in other countries.
After the Genocide, Simbikangwa fled to DR Congo with his family and later went to Comoros, where he received help from Catholic Missions to land in Mayotte in 2005.
Many high-profile Genocide suspects fled to France as they enjoyed close diplomatic relations during the time they were in power.
In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights condemned France for dragging its feet in bringing to justice people accused of taking part in the Genocide against the Tutsi.
Rwanda has also accused France of being a safe haven for Genocide perpetrators.
Dr Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Ibuka, an umbrella organisation of associations advocating for the interests of survivors of the Genocide, told The New Times that Simbikangwa’s trial signals France’s intention to change its image from being a safe haven for top criminals.
He described the suspect as a man who exhibited the most cruel acts against the Tutsi during the genocide.
The accused is believed to be one of the members of the Akazu, an inner group that conceptualised and oversaw the Genocide.
Survivors say since his appointment as an intelligence chief, Simbikangwa was tasked with hunting down Tutsis and torturing them.
“It’s unfortunate that the court in Paris is trying him for crimes committed between April to July 1994, but his evil acts date way back to when he established a militia group called escadrons de la mort (literally translated as death squad). It is this group of ruthless men that arrested me and tortured me, just because I was a Tutsi,” said one of the survivors, whose identify cannot be divulged because they are a witness in the case.
Many of the victims’ families have been eagerly awaiting Simbikangwa’s trial and hope for a trend owing to the fact that France has now started trying Genocide suspects.
Dafroza Gauthier, who lost more than 80 members of her family in the Genocide, has been working for the past 12 years with her husband, Alain, to build the case against Pascal Simbikangwa.
She told reporters the trial was “an important moment for the victims who have been waiting for this trial for 20 years–for them, for their families, but also for the French people who were certainly misinformed at the time of the events during the Genocide.
‘History being made’
Justice minister Johnston Busingye told the media that it is “history being made.”
“We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years... it is late, but it is a good sign. It is not time to celebrate; it is still the beginning, the first case in 20 years. We will watch it with a lot of interest. We will cooperate, but France has a long list of suspects on its territory.”
A statement released by Leslie Haskell, of the International Justice Counsel for Human Rights Watch, said Simbikangwa’s trial is an important moment in the global fight against impunity.
“France now has the tools it needs to ensure (that) perpetrators of the world’s most serious crimes don’t escape justice or find a safe haven in the country,” Haskell said.
Before the killings, French troops armed and trained the Rwandan army. As the genocidal regime collapsed, they allegedly helped radical Hutus flee. Later, France took in a number of exiles who have lived for years free of prosecution.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and other Western jurisdictions have tried, extradited or deported several Rwandans accused of having a hand in the 1994 Genocide.